Teaching Poetry: Examples of Rhythm and Meter in Poetry Lesson Resource

You’re busy and I don’t want to waste your time, so I’m going to give you a sonnet lesson plan pdf right at the start. It’s a good exercise for helping students understand meter and the importance of word choice.

Key Points When Teaching Poetry Meter

Popular Poems for High School Lesson Plans

Good poetry lesson plans take the fear out of teaching poetry. The Popular Poems for High School unit plan contains a ready-to-annotate and analyze copy of 19 popular poems for high school students; graphic organizers for digging deeper; a guide for annotating and analyzing a poem; a quiz; and answer keys for everything.

Have the following objectives in mind when teaching poetry meter:

  1. Students should be able to define rhythm, meter, and foot. Meter is the basic scheme of stressed and unstressed syllables. A foot is two or more syllables that make up the smallest unit of meter in a poem. Rhythm is the combination of adherence to and deviation from the standard meter. If poems were basketball teams, the fast break style of offense would be the meter and me dunking the ball in your face on one trip followed by me draining a 3-pointer on the next trip would be the rhythm (I can dream, can’t I?).  The general offensive framework is the same.  How it’s carried out changes.
  2. Students should figure out the scansion of poems and be proficient at identifying meter in poetry. It would be nice if they could do it without whining and asking that traditional teenager entitlement question, “Why do I gots to do this?” but they won’t. Tell them poets are masters of words. Masters of words pay attention to the rhythm and flow of writing and speaking. If they want to be masters of words, they should study how masters of words do this. If that doesn’t suffice, just tell them it will be on the test.
  3. Students should be able to analyze how meter and rhythm affect a poem’s theme. This requires thought. Be careful.
  4. Students should be able to apply their knowledge of meter and use it with purpose in their own writing. This indicates mastery. Any student who can do this should be given an ‘A’.

Poems for Teaching Poetry Meter

If you’re like me, you probably can’t get enough of identifying meter in poetry.

  1. Iambic Pentameter: Any sonnet, English or Petrarchan, will do, as will all of Shakespeare’s plays. If you’re the non-sonnet type, try an ottava rima or a rhyme royal.
  2. Iambic Tetrameter: Instead of five feet, tetrameter has four. “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell is a fine example.
  3. Iambic Trimeter: You’ve probably figured out that trimeter has three feet per line as in “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke.
  4. Iambic hexameter: This has six lines and is referred to as an Alexandrine. The Spenserian Stanza consists of eight lines of iambic pentameter and one Alexandrine. “There is a Pleasure in the Pathless Woods” by Lord Byron is a fine example.
  5. Variations of iambs include the pyrrhic, spondee, trochee, anapest, and dactyl. When you come across scansion examples in class that don’t quite fit the iamb, throw out these words and your entire class will think you’re a genius.

Rhythm in Poems

Meter in poems is best described as a pattern of recurrence, something that happens with regularity. Rhythm is the derivation from the meter.  Poets use the following to create rhythm:

  1. Repetition – the repeating of words creates rhythm. Examples: Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”and “Beat! Beat! Drums!” are two examples of repetition creating rhythm in poems.
  2. Line Length – Standard line lengths allow a poem to flow smoothly; breaking up the flow with shorter lines or longer lines interrupts the flow and creates a rhythm of its own. For example, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” varies line lengths to enhance the mood of sadness.
  3. Meter and Line Length – Poets don’t have to vary line length to create a specific rhythm. Pentameter, five sets of two syllables following a stressed unstressed pattern (called an iamb), is the most common meter, followed by tetrameter, four sets of the aforementioned iambs. Compare the rhythm in a Shakespearean sonnet, written in iambic pentameter, to that of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” If this stuff really excites you, rewrite each poem in the other’s form and note the differences. When you get to the point where you think nothing about rhythm and meter in poetry will amaze you, check out Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” written in iambic trimeter, the same meter as a waltz (I told you you’d be amazed).
  4. Pauses – Poets manipulate rhythm with end-stopped lines–when the poems’s sentences end naturally at the end of lines; run-on lines-when the sentence carries over into the next line; and enjambments–when the sentence ends midway through the line.

Rhythm vs Meter

It’s easy to confuse rhythm and meter in poetry. Meter is the basic plan of the line; rhythms are how the words actually flow, often with the meter, but sometimes varying from it.

I’ll use a football analogy. In football, the coach calls a play–that’s meter. As the play develops, players may make individual adjustments–a running back may cut inside, a wide receiver may break off his route, or a quarterback may scramble, for example–that’s rhythm. Just like a football team that makes no adjustments would lose every game, a poet that makes no adjustment in his meter turns out losing poems.

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